Latest update: December 18th, 2013
As an education writer for the nonprofit organization, Kars for Kids, and as someone who made Aliyah from Pittsburgh 34 years ago, I decided to write about the challenges of Aliyah from western countries with school age children. See the previous piece in this series, Aliyah and the Gifted Child.
Today I interview Dina Mann of Efrat.
V: Dina, I know you came here when you were in fifth grade, from Cleveland. Where did you go to school in Cleveland? Were you popular? What was hard to leave behind? How did you feel about making Aliyah?
Dina: In Cleveland I went to the Hebrew Academy through 4th grade. I was not popular. On the contrary – I was pretty marginalized, picked on.
It just happened to work out in my class that most the other girls came from Telshe Yeshiva homes, whereas I came from a Modern Orthodox/Bnei Akiva home. The other girls ridiculed me for pronouncing Hebrew with a Sephardi Taf instead of an Ashkenazi Saf, for wearing pants after school and for going to Bnei Akiva (instead of B’nos where the others went).
I was thrilled to make Aliyah! Throughout my whole childhood I had heard that we are making Aliyah soon. The only thing difficult to leave behind was my family – grandparents and cousins we were very close with who all lived within a block of our house.
V: How well did you speak Hebrew when you came to Israel? Where did you go to school? What was difficult for you? What helped make things easier?
Dina: I didn’t speak any Hebrew when we came to Israel. Well, maybe a few symbolic words like Shalom, Banana . . . At first, while living in Jerusalem, I went to Noam elementary school for a year, and then Horev for almost a year before moving to Efrat. I don’t remember any difficulties. I seemed to master the language very quickly.
I think what helped with that were two things:
A) I was happy and eager to learn the language and communicate with my new and supportive environment!
B) I was thrust into a Hebrew-speaking environment. Only one other girl in the grade spoke English. So I was forced to speak Hebrew right away. And I remember all the girls being very accepting and helpful, and never making fun of me at all for my poor language skills. The result – within 3 months I understood everything in class.
I think even my private 2-hours-a-week Hebrew tutoring classes in school were stopped then, because I was already getting more IN class than on my own out of class. I’m sure it took awhile before I was speaking fluently and without an accent, but I don’t remember the difficulty, so it seems it was very smooth and quick.
The other obvious area of difficulty would be social. Here too, my transition was amazingly smooth. My parents found and introduced me to neighborhood girls my age and had them take me along to Bnei Akiva almost from day one. I thought I was in heaven. I was hooked as a die-hard Bnei Akivanik from then on. Here I finally found my place socially, and the surrounding I found myself in was in line with my upbringing at home.
V: Tell us about your current life: when did you marry? What do the two of you do for a living? How many kids, ages?
Dina: After serving in the Army, going to university at Bar Ilan, a year as a Bruria Scholar at Midreshet Lindenbaum, and then living and working for a few years in the Katamon singles “swamp”, when I was almost 28, I married Dave.
We both work in the computer/High Tech industry. Dave works in software quality assurance for IBM, and I work in software development for a government office.
We have 4 children. They would want to be mentioned by name, so here goes: Meirav, a girl – 12; Yonah, a boy – 10; Yechiel, a boy – almost 9; Avigayil, a girl – 6.
V: Why did you decide to send your kids to Aseh Chayil?
Dina: We send our 4 children to Aseh Chayil for a combination of reasons.
We very strongly identify with its National Religious and Modern Orthodox ideology. We admire its steady allegiance to the old-time HaPoel HaMizrachi path. We are proud of the mix of families from various walks of religious life that feel at home and welcome in the school.
We choose to send our children to school in a co-ed environment. Classes are co-ed through fourth grade, and the campus as a whole is co-ed. We believe this to be the healthiest environment in which to raise our children.
Aseh Chayil has been recognized for excellence (and received two national awards to that effect in the past 10 years) not only for its academic success, but mainly for its unique educational philosophy, and its successful implementation. Aseh Chayil has always been open to all! Almost from inception it has welcomed special education classes, and has made a point of integrating these classes, and their students as individuals, as much as possible into the mainstream classes. But even beyond that – Aseh Chayil does its utmost to provide for the unique needs of every child of varying educational needs and learning styles within regular classes. Granted – resources are much more limited than the needs, but that is where my attempt to help with fundraising also comes in.
Aseh Chayil’s recognition of excellence was awarded also due to its hands-on experience-centered learning strategy, especially as applied to religious studies. The school features a Tanach Room, in which settings from the Bible being studied by the students are erected and brought to life. The children dress up in costumes from the era studied and study in hands-on, 3D, interactive learning centers.
In classes in the regular classroom, creative writing and acting assignments related to the material in Mishna or Torah aim to provide the students a strong emotional connection to the personalities and values being studied. The school also features an exhibit of 1.5 million buttons the students collected to try to grasp and connect to the stories of children killed in the Holocaust. An interactive Holocaust study center features suitcases of artifacts and individual stories of children lost in the Holocaust. We chose Aseh Chayil for its educational innovation and its goal of personalizing the learning experience and the values it teaches.
We also chose Aseh Chayil due to its academic excellence, in both secular and religious studies. It is considered a top elementary school in the region, whose graduates are very highly sought by the high schools in the area.
V: I know you’re active in your children’s school, Aseh Chayil. Can you tell me your exact position and how long you’ve held this position? Why do you remain so active in your children’s school?
Dina: I serve as chairman of the board of a non-profit organization named Chayil B’Efrata, a parents association, whose main goal is to raise funds for extra and special activities and services in the school. We assist the Aseh Chayil School in providing for the welfare of the students attending the school – both physically and educationally. The organization achieves these aims by mobilizing parent volunteers and raising funds. Spending priorities, goals and special projects to benefit the school are identified and planned in cooperation with the school administration. I’ve served as chairman of the board for about 5 years.
The organization, over its 25 years of activity, has equipped the school with computer labs, built the Tanach room, and assisted in building the Holocaust learning center. On a yearly basis, we fund extra teaching staff, making sure the children study in smaller classes than provided by the State, and allowing small level-focused study groups for certain subjects. Every year the organization funds activities for a year-long interactive study experience on a pertinent topic of community importance – Such as the Hebrew Language, the Founding of the State, Efrat History (at the occasion of 30 years to Efrat’s establishment). The organization contributes toward the physical conditions in the school, such as playgrounds (including an interactive outdoor science park), water coolers, storage facilities and electronic equipment.
I am active in the school because I believe parents need to be involved in their children’s school. Specifically in this case, parents need to empower and improve the school beyond what is provided by the national public school system. I feel that the bare minimum that is provided by the education ministry is lacking in its ability to provide all we wish for our children’s education, and I feel that complaining is not warranted or beneficial. I believe that if we want something additional or different, it is upon us to personally work with the school administration to make that happen.
An added perk to being involved with the school, is that the staff knows me and sees me a lot. They know I am approachable and cooperative. This pays off when there are issues to discuss about my own children.
First of all, I’m just around a lot, so I have more frequent opportunities to run into teachers who interact with my kids, and hear more frequent updates. And when issues need my involvement, they tend to be brought to my attention and addressed more quickly, and with a high degree of coordination between my kid, us as parents, and the staff. But this is not the reason I got involved, just an added benefit I discovered.
V: Have your children had any difficulties with the education system? If so, how have you handled these issues?
Dina: I would define it more that some of my children have certain personal challenges that manifest themselves as potential difficulties for succeeding within the education system.
Issues have been handled and continue to be monitored on a regular basis through close cooperation between school staff, the child, parents and health professionals. I find that best results are achieved when all information is shared freely and up front. Both parents and teachers share tips with each other on how to connect best with the child and bring out the best in him/her.
I make sure to let teachers know what strategies I am using at home to achieve cooperation on homework or home study assignments. I make sure a child gets positive reinforcement from us and from teachers. For example, for some children, I make sure to tell teachers to give the child recognition at school even for partial homework completion, to make sure the child is experiencing an overall feeling of success and progress in his learning experience, and not reaching frustration leading to even less motivation.
I also let a teacher know of any specific aids I notice help my child. If I know my child fiddling with a small toy or ball enhances his concentration, I make sure to coordinate with the teacher for her to allow that (or something similar that will not distract her or others) in class. Raising this as soon as I am aware of it achieves two goals – It neutralizes any possible conflict that may ensue surrounding this fiddling had it not been raised in advance, and it gives the teacher and the child real tools to achieve the positive learning expected in class.
I often share with teachers any challenges the child is facing outside the classroom, in his/her social circle or within the family environment. I generally ask teachers to share with me if they notice any change in behavior or mood, and any tips they think I could apply at home for better communication and encouragement for the child. In general, my best strategy for handling anything that comes up is making sure to be in almost constant contact with almost all the teachers (homeroom teacher and special subject teachers) who teach all four of my children.
As I said – hanging around the school a lot as a volunteer offers me the perk of being able to be in touch with the teachers more easily. When I find myself hanging out at school less, I utilize email to maintain a continuous connection with teachers.
Through these methods I find our children are really thriving. We have managed to enhance their positive attitudes toward school and learning, and they are all excelling beyond our expectations and their teachers’ expectations
V: How do you see the future for your children? Are you glad your parents made Aliyah? Do you ever think about moving back with your kids?
Dina: I am very happy my parents made Aliyah! I am the person I have become thanks to their upbringing, and thanks to the change they made. I sometimes wonder if the conviction I feel to live the life I am living would have come through on its own, and whether as an adult I would have made the same choice on my own. I have sometimes wished I had had the opportunity to prove that to myself. But I have never ever considered moving anywhere else.
I very strongly feel that our existence is of utmost value here. And if there are things I feel need to be improved – I feel most empowered to affect the necessary changes in my surrounding right here! And I feel any affect I can have here is not only for the personal benefit of my family or immediate community, but also part of history and continually building our national homeland as a whole.
I wish my children to grow into the same sense of community and national connection and responsibility, each using their talents and inclinations to add their imprint on the revival of our nation in its homeland, in whichever particular environment will bring out their personal strengths.
Feel free to write me: Varda@kars4kids.org and I will share your stories here in this space, anonymous or attributed as you prefer.Varda Meyers Epstein
About the Author: Blogger and mother of 12, Varda Meyers Epstein is a third-generation Pittsburgher who made aliyah at age 18 and never looked back. A proud settler who lives in the biblical Judean heartland, Varda serves as the communications writer for the nonprofit car donation program Kars4Kids, a Guidestar Gold medal charity.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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